Last week I published two posts on modernizing public participation in city government. I briefly touched upon the concept of lobbyists and advocacy groups and their impact on policy development at Vancouver City Hall. Given the positive reaction I had to this series (thanks for all your emails!), I thought it might be worth exploring a bit further just exactly what lobbying at 12th and Cambie actually looks like.
One of the most effective and visible lobby groups (outside the development industry) has to be the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition (VACC). They are very active within the City’s powerful Bicycle Advisory Committee and have been making their presence felt for years. According to their 2009 financial statements, their successful lobbying efforts are partially funded by:
- Fed/Prov/Municipal Taxpayers: $159,764.02 (Delta, New Westminster, Surrey, Pitt Meadows, District of North Van, Metro Vancouver, Maple Ridge, Vancouver Coastal Health, BC Hydro and the City of Vancouver are all listed as financial contributors)
- Translink: $165,430
- Private Funding/Donations: $88,717.15
Some of the BC based companies supporting the VACC are Happy Planet Foods Ltd. and Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC). Happy Planet is Mayor Gregor Robertson's juice company (both Joel Solomon and Tide Canada Director Alan Broadbent are corporate directors of the juice company), while MEC just happens to sell a heckuva lot of bike gear, clothing and accessories along with other outdoor equipment. According to VACC’s website, 71% of their administration costs go to hire staff to lobby and conduct other programming throughout Metro Vancouver. In 2009, the VACC spent $343,501.17 to cover staff expenses.
I must say, as someone who's worked in politics and public affairs for a big chunk of my career, I tip my hat off to this organization. Not only have they convinced various levels of government to give them precious tax dollars to conduct their advocacy, they’ve also developed one of the most comprehensive lobbying guides I’ve ever seen in print. It’s an A-Z handbook on how to undertake successful lobbying campaigns and wring even more money out of civic politicians for separated bike lanes and cycling infrastructure.
Although I haven’t read it, I bet it probably puts BCAA's (the automobile guys) lobby guidebook to shame.
The Guide reveals the techniques, approaches and tactics of the VACC. It explains how to cozy up to the media, politicians and city staff in order to get them on to the cycling agenda. It talks about how politicians need to be spoken to differently than staff and even asserts that everything must be done to make local councillors and the Mayor “look good.”
Other advocacy groups in Vancouver could learn a lesson or two from this sophisticated approach to lobbying city hall. Luckily for other organizations (perhaps the Hornby Business Owners Coalition?) the complete advocacy guide can be found on their website and is available for a free download. I suspect this had to be posted online as its development was funded partially through taxpayer funds.
The guide opens up by asking “What is advocacy”. I should note the VACC never uses the dirty “lobby” word anywhere in their Guide. The more sanitized term “advocacy” was likely chosen over the “L” word as it sounds much more progressive and less “backroom-ish”.
So how does the cycling lobby define advocacy? The Guide states:
Basically, advocacy is the act of trying to persuade the members of a governing body to enact legislation or policy favourable to your cause or to defeat or repeal legislation or policy unfavourable to your cause. Lots of things are involved, but what it really comes down to is relationship building: relationships with politicians, with staff, with the media, with the business community, and with neighbourhood associations.
These are very astute observations and help to explain why the VACC are at city hall so much. In fact, staff privately joke that cycling activist Richard Campbell is at city hall so much he should be appointed as the 12th member of council. According to Thirdwave Cycling Inc:
Richard is currently a Director of the British Columbia Cycling Coalition, a member of the City of Vancouver's Bicycle Advisory Committee and project manager of the Regional Cycling Network Data Collection initiative for the VACC.
A man known as "Richard" regularly posts pro-cycling comments on CityCaucus.com. This is the same Richard Campbell from the VACC. We note that "Richard" recently took a shot at the BC Liberal government (the same folks who generously provide the VACC with lots of funding) when he wrote:
Providing homes to the homeless is the responsibility of the provincial and federal governments. They have increased funding but still, the province's priorities seem to be elsewhere. Unfortunately, the province is spending $500 million on a new roof for BC Place, $1 billion on the South Fraser Perimeter Road and cutting taxes to corporations.
With all the debate around separated bike lanes vs. traditional bike lanes in Vancouver, the VACC Guide book provides some interesting insight into what their strategy just might be:
Change doesn’t happen by itself. Most improvements you see in cycling facilities around the Lower Mainland are the result of advocacy. If we don’t push for more, the best we can hope for is the status quo.
The status quo by the way has translated into Vancouver becoming one of the most bike-friendly jurisdictions in North America. Prior to the current Vision administration, over 400 km of dedicated bike paths had been constructed or planned throughout Vancouver. Regardless, this hasn’t hampered efforts by some who continuously peddle (pedal?) the idea that previous administrations were not friendly to cyclists.
The Guide also offers great tips to their legions of volunteers regarding how to properly lobby politicians at City Hall:
- Politicians listen if the public is speaking
- Use your inside connections as well as outside strategies
- Try to be the one to frame the issue (e.g. we're pro-bike rather than anti-car)
- Focus on the swing vote (don’t waste your energy on those who won’t be convinced)
This is all very good advice for any lobbyist and the document was clearly not written by a dummy. I particularly like the part about how you should use your “inside connections”. I guess the Guide gives credence to the old saying “it’s not what you know, but who you know.”
As we previously revealed, a report released by Vancouver City Hall about getting live performance venues approved also touched upon a system that wasn’t corrupt, but could “influenced”. The City report stated
It’s not a corrupt system, but if you have a relationship or you know the right person, it is "influencable".
The VACC clearly indicates that working the media angle is an important part of their overall strategy. That’s likely why you see so many of their volunteers writing template letters to the editor and filling up the blogosphere anytime a cycling issue pops up. The VACC are also very adept at working key media that cover the city hall beat in the hope that all their efforts will pay off with good coverage. Here is an excerpt that helps to explain what I mean:
Access to the media – It’s not easy to develop relationships with members of the media. It’s a time-consuming exercise but should pay off in the long term.
Access to decision makers/politicians – This isn’t generally such a large issue at the local level but is more so when dealing with the provincial government.
Public attitude – There may sometimes be a negative reception to our advocacy work (“a bunch of bike radicals”) but it’s a good idea to start some conversations to try to find out what the real concerns are. Some people are opposed to our ideas, some are indifferent, while others are just unaware. The indifferent or unaware should be seen as potential allies.
It’s revealing that the cycling lobby feels they have good access to civic politicians, but when a Downtown Eastside business owner under siege wants to have a chat with the Mayor, he is rebuffed.
There are also several sections in the Guide which help to explain the difference between politicians and public servants when it comes to their power base. Regardless, the number one rule of thumb is all VACC lobbyists should make the politicians and staff “look good”, as this will yield results. There is no detailed explanation as to exactly what “looking good” means, but I’ll leave that one to your imagination.
The Guide states sometimes you need not bother the politicians, as staff can just go ahead and act on your request without much “fuss and bother”:
Work with municipal or provincial staff: Staff may be able to make things happen without too much fuss and bother; give them facts and advise them; give them a chance to look good.
Work with politicians: make them look good; give them credit; don’t overwhelm them with details.
I’m not sure if civic politicians will find it amusing that the Guide says they shouldn’t be bothered with the "details" of an issue. If not bothered with the details, then what? Perhaps a discussion of the politician's upcoming holiday plans over a sip of cognac at the Wedgewood Hotel? The Guide delves even further into this topic:
Mmayor (sic), councillors, MLAs, ministers, etc., while perhaps not knowing the details of bicycle infrastructure and programs, help bring the funding and set the priorities for the bureaucracy.
It’s hard to believe that multi-million dollar decisions such as separated bike lanes on Hornby are being made by civic politicians who know little of the details of the initiative. Or is it?
As for how all the VACC’s lobbying efforts can pay off, they provide a helpful explanation regarding the inner workings of city hall:
The more bicycle-trained staff there are in local government, the more institutionalized good bicycle facility planning and implementation will become.
It’s as simple as that folks. All the lobbyists have to do is make the bureaucrats aware of a particular issue and presto, you’ve got instant and institutionalized action. Or perhaps it is better known in some circles as “systemic social change”.
When I read the next section, I couldn’t help but think about how the debate raging in the media regarding the Hornby and Dunsuir separated bike lanes:
While we have to be diplomatic and build and maintain respect for the issues we represent, it’s sometimes necessary to push, pull, and pry other stakeholders along.
Ouch. Pry other stakeholders along? All this sounds like so much work and even a tad painful if you ask me. I guess it’s all in days work, but who would have thought that even a reference to stroking the egos of politicians would make it into the Guide.
If you don’t have any specific events planned, it still helps to make politicians look good. This isn’t just a question of stroking egos; if someone has done something we consider positive, we should let them (and others) know.
Under a section entitled “Staff”, the VACC once again mention the importance of making the city bureaucrats look good:
Staff aren’t politically driven the way elected officials are, but they do make important decisions affecting cycling. It helps to get staff involved and passionate about our issues. The best way to do that is to keep them informed. If you come across some useful information or a great idea from another jurisdiction, pass it on. It may help the staff person look good, and it will improve cycling conditions locally.
In my previous posts I referred to the fact you need to sign up early in order to get your name as high up on the official speakers list as possible. That’s because for hot issues, the lobbyists want to ensure the first 10-15 speakers all sing from the same song sheet. The Guide helps to explain the strategy:
Sign up for the speakers’ list as early as you can. The media sometimes leave before the end of the meeting and you want to make sure they hear you before they write their stories.
I can’t tell you how many times I read a story about something that happened at city hall the next day and wondered if I had attended the same meeting as everyone else. That’s because with the archaic public feedback system, the most organized supporters/opponents are almost always up first to speak and try to run out the clock – often times with help from a few politicians.
I trust you’ve found this post enlightening and if you are interested in lobbying your local city hall, I’d highly recommend you use the VACC’s A-Z lobby handbook as a reference document.
As part of my ongoing series on this topic, I have requested an interview with Richard Campbell, VACC advocate and frequent Vancouver City Hall presenter and blog commenter. I’d like to get his perspective on the issue of public engagement at city hall and whether advocacy groups like the VACC are helping or hurting the overall public policy development process. Richard did not respond to our request before we published this post, but once we do hear back we'll ask him about his tactics and share our conversation here on CityCaucus.com.
UPDATE: Subsequent to publishing this story we received a note advising us that Richard Campbell is no longer working for the VACC.
- Post by Daniel